They fought Hitler but my father and uncle were vilified as traitors back home
A new campaign seeks to lift the stigma for the 5,000 Irish men who deserted the Army to fight for the British in World War II, writes John Meagher
World War II helped shape Paddy Reid's life -- even though he was born five years after it ended. As the son of an Irishman who had fought for the British, he grew up hearing the jibes that his father had sided with the "enemy". But worse than that, his father, Paddy, had quit the Irish Army in order to fight for the Allies. As a branded "deserter", his father was blacklisted by the Government from any state or public job for a full decade.
As a result, Paddy was born into a life of abject poverty in the former Monto district of north inner-city Dublin. His father's only way to bring in money was to do "nixers" in Cork and Galway, but money was exceedingly tight and Paddy and his siblings had a childhood pockmarked by hunger.
In Britain, soldiers returned to a hero's welcome. But there was no such acclaim for Irish soldiers who came back. "Men like my father fought for the Europe we have today," Paddy says, speaking this week from his home in Fairview, Dublin. "We tend to forget that the alternative outcome would have meant a continent controlled by Nazi Germany.
"But Irish people who fought for the British -- and especially those who left the Irish Army to do so -- were vilified when they got back by some and just neglected by others. And many of them went to their graves -- as my father did -- with the stigma of being considered a deserter. The few who are still with us today have to live with that stigma and it's heartbreaking."
An estimated 50,000 men from the Republic fought in World War II and roughly 5,000 of them were soldiers who had deserted the Irish Army in order to fight on the Allied side.
"The Irish Government illegally court-martialled these men, in absentia, without trial or the right or reply," says English author Robert Widders, whose latest book, Spitting On A Soldier's Grave, lifts the lid on the phenomenon.
"These Irish soldiers were vilified by De Valera's government for the crime of fighting against the Nazis. Even men who died fighting, such as Joseph Mullally from Co Westmeath, were court-martialled. And he had given his life in Normandy in 1944."
Now a campaign -- endorsed by Paddy Reid -- has been instigated to seek an official pardon for the 4,983 deserters who fought for the Allies.
On Thursday, Peter Mulvany -- who was instrumental in getting pardons for Irish and British soldiers executed during the First World War -- was among those to launch a petition at the gates of Leinster House.
"I think it is awful that these men, who are of an old age now, are having to live with the stigma of being deserters," Peter says. "Rather than being applauded for their bravery in the war, many have been made to feel like strangers in their own country.
"Some, caught during wartime, were tortured in prisons in Dublin and Cork. Unfortunately, a lot of them have died but it is still very important for their family that their names are cleared."
Paddy Reid was just 16 when he joined the Irish Defence Forces. He had lied about his age in order to get admitted, but soon tired of the tedium of army life in peacetime Ireland. Shortly after war broke out in 1939, he and his older brother Freddie deserted and enlisted in the British army.
"I think they wanted an adventure as much as anything," Paddy Jnr says today. "They were two lads from Dublin who'd seen very little of life."
Their innocence would soon be shattered. Paddy wound up in Kohima, India, fighting against the Japanese in one of the most brutal battles of the 20th century.
"It was close-combat fighting," his son says. "The Japanese were on a suicide mission. My father killed a lot of men, often with a bayonet. It was either that, or be killed himself."
The horror of war wasn't the only psychological scar to leave its impact on Paddy Reid.
"He went into Calcutta after the Bengal Famine of 1943 and saw the city littered with corpses," Paddy Jnr says.
Readjusting to life in Dublin would prove to be virtually impossible, despite the initial happiness of meeting Kathleen Bollard, a girl from the Liberties, whom he would soon marry.
With work so difficult to come by and like so many who had been to war, Paddy took to alcohol.
"He kept his drinking in check until my mother died in 1970 -- I was 19 --but then he went off the rails. I was an apprentice carpenter in CIE and had to look after the children, including my one-year-old sister. I think drink helped him deal with what he had experienced during the war."
Paddy Jnr's grandfather -- also Paddy -- had first-hand experience of wartime as well, having served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War. Injured at Ypres, he would spend most of his life in the military hospital at Leopardstown, Dublin.
'He was part of a generation that had fought for the British to help the cause of Irish independence, but like so many others, he was forgotten about. I used to call up to the hospital and see him and the other men who had fought in the Great War. You could feel the loneliness as soon as you went there -- they were starved of company.
"I remember being with those men and watching the triumphal Easter Rising commemoration of 1966 on the television there and they were acutely aware that they were not part of the Ireland that was being celebrated. They had effectively been written out of history."
It was a fate his own father would face, too. "He died of lung cancer in 1987," Paddy says. "When he was diagnosed, he didn't want chemotherapy. He almost felt he deserved to die a painful death.
"I was in America at the time -- he hadn't told us how serious his condition was -- but I'm told he had prayed that God would understand why he had killed so many people."
His brother, Freddie, had died several years before. He lived in Glasgow after the war, cognisant of the fact that Ireland would be an inhospitable place for an army deserter who had assisted the "enemy".
"My father and uncle and so many others like them fought for the freedom you and I enjoy today," says Paddy. "The least we can do is remove the stigma of desertion that haunted so many men all their lives."
A petition can be signed on Facebook. Search for 'Pardon the Irish hero'